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More sustainable dairying practices: Precision agriculture for pasture nutrient management

8th Dec 2016
Precision agriculture refers to the adoption of practices that try to increase the scale of resolution at which the needs of crop units (e.g. fields or zones within fields) or livestock units (e.g. groups of similar aged animals or even individual animals) are measured and managed. 
Precision nutrient management requires farmers to
1. carefully plan the crops that they will grow and the necessary soil physical and chemical conditions for optimal growth 
2. measure the existing soil parameters
3. respond to these through precise management of fertilisers and
4. regularly review progress and repeat this process.
Most dairy farms are managed in a uniform way, yet pastures can exhibit enormous variability in their yield, even within a single farm. Accordingly, much of the fertiliser that is used on the farm is wasted, despite the fact that fertilisers comprise a large proportion of the variable costs in modern farming. New technologies allow precise measurements of within pasture variation in nutrient needs and also provide the means to respond with tailored amounts and types of fertiliser.

Soil 

Although no studies were available for precision agriculture on dairy pastures specifically soils under a precision agricultural system will be managed for optimum fertility and structure to maximise crop quality and yield.

Water

Precision nutrient management will be expected to reduce the amount of nutrients applied in excess of pasture requirements, thereby reducing nutrient losses through leaching and runoff and subsequent decreases in water quality. 

Biodiversity

Aquatic biodiversity in particular will be expected to benefit from reduced fertiliser runoff into water supplies which can lead to eutrophication in local streams and lakes.

Yield

Precise nutrient management is expected to maintain or increase yields whilst decreasing variable costs of fertiliser use.

Other considerations and notes on best practice

  • the more variability there is in environmental conditions (particularly soil), the greater the potential rewards for a more precise fertiliser regime
  • Maximum improvements will be made when different precision agriculture tools are used in conjunction with one another
  • It is less about the specific technologies adopted and more about the careful gathering and interpretation of pasture data